Now this is public transportation

Cable cars aren't the only way to get around San Francisco but they are the most fun.

Cable cars aren’t the only way to get around San Francisco but they are the most fun.

Hop on and hand the conductor $6 — although there are passes for multiple trips, too.

Hand the conductor $6 — there are passes for multiple trips, too.

I could spend a day on San Francisco’s cable cars.

For six bucks, this unique mode of public transporation offers so much. Grab an outside seat or hang on one of the poles to tour some of San Francisco’s historic neighborhoods. Or hop on to get from one place to another as you would any public transportation. But stare down one of Fog City’s steep hills and you might feel like you should prepare yourself for a roller coaster ride — but relax; there won’t be any hair-raising rides today.

The nearly-silent cable cars clang on their bell to alert pedestrians and motorists of their approach.

The nearly-silent cable cars clang on their bell to alert pedestrians and motorists of their approach.

The San Francisco Cable Car offers an adventure, a tour bus, a ride through history, a San Francisco icon from its bell to its distinctive shape.

The cable car’s routes are limited. There are only three of the original routes still in operation. Two run along Powell Street — but you have to pay attention to the names on the top of the car. The Powell-Mason goes to Fisherman’s Wharf while the Powell-Hyde ends up near Ghirardelli Square. The California line goes more east-west.

The Powell Mason line ends at Fisherman's Wharf.

The Powell Mason line ends at Fisherman’s Wharf.

I had figured they were mostly a tourist thing but when I hopped aboard during the morning rush, plenty of my fellow passengers were clutching briefcases and wearing work clothes. So much nicer than my slog through Beltway traffic, don’t you think?

My hat is off to the driver, officially known as the gripman. I talked to one gripman who said some 95 percent of aspiring drivers wash out.

Keeping these historic old cars is unlike any driving most of us will ever do. Instead of steering wheel, gas pedal and brake, the gripman controls the cable car with a lever that

The gripman uses a vise-like lever that grab the underground cable to keep the cable car on its appointed rounds.

The gripman uses a vise-like lever that grab the underground cable to keep the cable car on its appointed rounds.

The levers and brakes are in the center of the cable car, between the outward-facing seats.

The levers and brakes are in the center of the cable car, between the outward-facing seats.

grips onto a wire wrapped rope cable a few inches under the street level. He’s got a brake, too, but watching the gripman keep the cable car on schedule with the grip lever was like watching ballet performed by a powerful dancer.

How does it really work? Even though I’ve watched the gripman work his magic, I still can’t tell. But I love the performance every time I see it.

It takes a team to keep these machines in operation. I counted three people on board: the gripman, the conductor and a third man on the back of the car.

But to keep these historic beauties going seven days a week, round trip up and down the hills, you gotta turn ’em around. Like Ghirardelli Square, the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf or the Golden Gate Bridge, this is a true San Francisco treat. (Sorry, I had to.) It takes a team of strong people to get the cable car on the wooden turntable, turn it around and get it back on its way….

The approach

The approach.

Pulling onto the turn table.

Pulling onto the turn table.

Turn it around.

Turn it around.

Almost turned around.

Almost turned around.

Back on track and on to the next stop.

Ready for the return trip.

Thanks for the ride. It’s always fun.

© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman

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